Lee Sharkey isn’t in the habit of entering poetry contests. The award-winning Maine poet has published 11 books of her own work, written many more poems that have been published individually and taught others the craft of sketching images, ideas and emotions with words.

This poem was different.

“I felt this poem was important,” Sharkey said. “I read a lot of poetry and I have not seen a lot written about dementia and the deeper effects of the disease.”

This poem was a “Letter to Al,” a heart-rending account of Sharkey’s experience with her husband’s memory loss that has made her a finalist in a prestigious international poetry contest.

Sharkey, 72, and her husband, Al Bersbach, 71, will fly to Dublin, Ireland, this week to learn if she has won this year’s Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize, a contest run by The Moth arts and literature magazine. Sharkey is one of four poets – three Americans and an Englishwoman – who are in the running for the 10,000 euro prize (about $10,725) and three 1,000 euro runner-up prizes. The ceremony is Thursday evening, when the poets will read their entries before the winner is announced.

Sharkey, a retired college professor who lives in Portland, wasn’t sure she wanted to make the trip. She knew it would be challenging and stressful for her husband, who was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment in 2010. Bersbach had no such reservations.


“I wanted to see my wife at a high point in her career and I wanted to be there to hear her read our poem,” said Bersbach, a retired information technology specialist who has a doctorate in high energy physics.

Writing the poem, entering the contest, and sharing the recognition it has received so far – all are extensions of the totally honest relationship that the couple have forged since they met 25 years ago. Their openness takes on a more public dimension now as they plan to use the poem to raise awareness about dementia and the support groups and other help available through the Alzheimer’s Association, Maine Chapter.

“In this set of circumstances, openness is particularly important,” Sharkey said. “Nobody should go through this without support.”

Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, affecting 5 million Americans today, a number that could rise to 16 million by 2050 as the country’s senior population grows. About 15 million Americans provided about $230 billion in unpaid care last year for family members who have the disease, according to the association.

“It’s great that Lee is using her creative talent to convey the difficulties of managing the disease as a care partner and as a couple,” said Drew Wyman, association spokesman. “She is helping to eradicate the stigma of the disease.”



Two years ago, Sharkey and Bersbach left their beloved 60-acre farm in rural Vienna, west of Waterville, so they would be closer to programs offered by the Alzheimer’s Association and medical services they both would need as they got older. Now they’re also closer to Bersbach’s son, Patrick Liddy, who lives just down the street in Portland. Sharkey’s son, Jesse, lives in Chicago.

“We knew we couldn’t stay where we were in the woods, where we couldn’t see neighbors, in a house heated by wood and always in need of repair,” said Sharkey, whose latest book is “Walking Backwards,” a collection of poems on the Jewish experience throughout history.

Sharkey and Bersbach are soft-spoken and subdued, sitting together and holding hands on their living room sofa.

A second marriage for both, Sharkey and Bersbach came to Maine separately in the 1970s as part of the back-to-the-land movement that drew people to start communes and live off the grid. They met in 1991, when she was a new professor at the University of Maine at Farmington and he was working on the university’s computer systems.

It was during the Persian Gulf War. Sharkey joined a group that was holding a weekly peace vigil in front of Farmington’s post office. Eventually, she and Bersbach were the only protesters left holding the banner.

The disease crept into their lives gradually. Growing forgetfulness became alarming when Bersbach, who by that time was retired, had difficulty writing a simple computer program for a university project. Both were familiar with the symptoms. Her father and his mother had the disease.


“Living with dementia is finding (medication) in the freezer and walking out of Cumby’s without your wallet,” Bersbach said.

“It’s losing hats and gloves and losing track of a thought midsentence,” Sharkey added. “It’s not picking up on jokes or allusions.”

The impact on dinner conversation and clever repartee – something that drew them together – has been hard for Sharkey.

“Sometimes we’re sitting there, but we could be sitting alone,” she said. “We’re spending more time together than ever before, but it’s not the kind of experience you anticipated. You have no idea where this is going or at what pace. You have no control.”

Bersbach is more upbeat. He still reads voraciously and pays attention to current events. The couple attended the recent Democratic rally in Portland, where Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and newly elected party chairman Tom Perez launched a national tour to rebuild the party.

And he continues to play the cello almost every day, though he chooses simpler compositions now. It fills their home with the sound of love that wooed Sharkey from the start.


“It takes little pieces out of your brain, but there’s a lot left,” Bersbach said of his illness. “I’ve been surprised that even though I’m not at all denying this, I haven’t at all felt fear. At the same time, I know what’s coming can be pretty dark.”


Sharkey wrote “Letter to Al” last June, while attending a weeklong retreat at the Hewnoaks Artist Colony on Kezar Lake in Lovell. The remote solitude finally allowed her to write about the anger, frustration and sadness that her husband’s disease has brought into their lives.

“I couldn’t have written it here,” Sharkey said. “It was a poem that wanted to come out, but I had avoided writing it because I knew it was going to be painful and I thought it was going to be a bit of a betrayal of Al to write it.”

At first she was afraid to share the poem with him.

“I came home and I just sat with it,” Sharkey said. “I gave it to him on his birthday in July and held my breath.”


Her fears were unfounded. Bersbach, a man of science who admits he never really got his wife’s poetry, connected with this one.

“This poem really moved me,” Bersbach said. “After a while. It took some time to understand it.”

Achingly personal, the five-stanza poem is rife with the sights and sounds of Maine – trilling loons and gathering fog – and worlds far beyond.

Sharkey recalls a joyous trip to Russia, where he swept her off her feet: “This is the kingdom you carried me off to, where everyone recited Pushkin and bested each other’s tales of the gulag, the breath of the great bear of hunger on their lips.”

She writes of her desire to save him now, to tuck him away in a poem and protect him in the only way she knows how. She shares her frustration with gradually losing the man she loves to an unrelenting, wicked disease: “What can I do? Just stay with me. Till the end of shadows. Till the end of end.”

The poem concludes with Sharkey accepting the best and worst of it. Recognizing the simplicity of living each day in the moment.


“I stop for a flower’s deliquescence, recite the sequence: crocus, daffodil, tulip, peony, rose,” she writes. “You fill your pillbox, watch Space X rockets land on water. A hand held, a kiss soft on the lips – there is no future to speak of.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:


Twitter: KelleyBouchard

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